Tying the Knot: A Guest Post

Today I turn my wee little blog over to one of the niftiest people I know: E.C. Bell. She’s here to talk about the penultimate book in her wonderful Marie Jenner mystery series (the first one is “Seeing the Light” if you are someone who has to read a series in order; you won’t be too lost if you start here or elsewhere…)

Marie Jenner just wants a Vegas holiday.

When psychic Crystal Demoines tells James Lavall that his uncle’s spirit is trapped in Las Vegas, Marie is thrilled. All she’ll have to do is help Jimmy “anything for a buck” Lavall move on to the next plane of existence, and then she and James can have the holiday of her dreams.

But she never dreamed that a lieutenant of the drug kingpin from Edmonton would be staying at the same hotel as her and James, and that James would become his new best friend. Or that she’d have to find Jimmy’s girlfriend Rita—who disappeared the same night Jimmy died—before he would finally move on. Or that the most powerful man in the hotel would be looking for Rita too. To find the money she stole.

And Marie never dreamed that she’d be planning a Vegas wedding in the middle of it all. But she is.

Looks like her dream vacation is about to become a nightmare.

I love these books. They are fun, interesting, and keep the action moving along. Without further ado, here’s the author herself, discussing Marie’s journey to date, and what our lass can look forward to. It’s not necessarily going to be a smooth landing…

So, what’s it like to write the second last book in a series?

I started writing the Marie Jenner Mystery series more than a decade ago. When I wrote the first book, I felt it had the potential to be a series, but didn’t have a clear idea what it would look like. Then, I wrote the second book, and the series arc crystallized for me. I knew it would be a series, that it would end, and how. I just needed to get Marie Jenner, my main character, where I needed her to be, to have the ending I wanted.

That was before I really got to know Marie. And before I realized that in order for me to tell a good story, I was going to have to put her through some of the worst days of her life. I did it, but with every book it got harder and harder. I liked this girl I’d invented, and I wished I could treat her better. But a girl happily living her life makes a boring story, so that never happened.

And now, I’m here. Near the end. Tying up some loose ends in the second last book, so I can finish the series. Which is why Marie had to go to Las Vegas.

In Seeing the Light, the first book in the series, Jimmy “Anything for a buck” Lavall died in Vegas, and I knew his spirit would eventually have to come home, and Marie would be the one to help him.

Besides, a holiday in Vegas sounded like fun. But it wasn’t for Marie. It couldn’t be, because  I had to tell an entertaining story. And honestly? I feel badly about that. She deserved a holiday, because I’d put her through hell in the first six books. And I know what’s coming.

In the final book, Marie’s life is going to change forever. She doesn’t know that yet, because I haven’t written it, but I know. And all I can say is, “I’m sorry, Marie. From the bottom of my heart.”

She’s like a real person in my life, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like without her stories in my head. I’ll meet new people, of course, as I write new books and stories, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for her. Which is why writing this second last book was so hard. I’m saying good-bye, and I don’t want to.

As a new writer, I really enjoy learning from my more seasoned colleagues but most important, I am a reader first and foremost; and love a cracking good mystery series. Give this one a try – you won’t be disappointed!

If you want to know more, links are below (impolite commentary: order directly through Tyche Books or request via your local independent bookseller if you can. Amazon may be a necessary evil but an evil nonetheless):

Tying the Knot on Goodreads –> https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57730599-tying-the-knot

Tying the Knot on Tyche Books –> http://tychebooks.com/tying-the-knot

Tying the Knot on Amazon –> https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08ZSX5T13

Tying the Knot on Kobo –> https://www.kobo.com/ww/en/ebook/tying-the-knot-14

For anyone who wishes to connect, access points follow:

Join Eileen’s mailing list via her website at http://www.eileenbell.com/for news about new books, upcoming appearances and, occasionally, recipes.

Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ecbellmystery/ and Twitter at https://twitter.com/ECBell6

Thanks for reading. This has been a year, and supporting small press publishers, independent bookstores and all authors is more important than ever. Now go visit Las Vegas with Marie – it’s a COVID-friendly trip!

Only hearing the flaws

Among the late, great Harry Chapin’s best songs* was “Mr. Tanner**.” At the urging of family and friends, an amateur singer risks everything to perform. It does not go particularly well.

The song includes the line “He did not know how well his sang, he only heard the flaws.” I’ve been thinking about that line recently, as part of reviewing some of my writing. Whereas shrugging off bad reviews is simple (even if my default is “f*ck ’em if they don’t get it”), hearing my own flaws as a writer is brutal. I DO get what I’m trying to say and can’t hide behind a simple “f*ck ’em” when I am the one sitting in my own head.

So what’s to do? On the one hand, revising is a critical tool, but then there’s the trap of “just one more round of revisions” becoming an endless cycle where nothing is ever truly complete. One of the good things about my Day Job are the inflexible deadlines – I have to accept “good enough” and get it out the door, even if sometimes the words could be polished further. The most compelling proposal in the world is going to get rejected if it is received after the deadline…. my team’s motto is “Get it Right, Get it Done, Get it GONE.”

On the other hand, a “great is the enemy of good” philosophy can drive sloppy work. I have revisited stories after I have sent them out – heck, even after they’ve been published – and realized how much better I could do if I only tried one more round of polishing.

I’ve talked here (scroll down to read below if you’re just joining us…) about the need to give a story my best shot and then let it marinate in its little folder for a few days before I take one more pass at it. I’m still working on the timeline. I might need to build a week in, as by that time the words have mostly sifted out of my brain and I can look with slightly fresh eyes. Stay tuned to see if that works – I am trying to write ahead of several known calls for submission and if I get far enough ahead for that extra week I will try it and report back!

*One of the best live albums of all time was his “Greatest Stories Live”; fight me.

**https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo-tCNtFI10

Giftmas 2020: Connections

First things first. Let’s discuss the purpose for this post.

It’s been… well… It’s been a year that soon will end. And with year’s end, my awesome friend and editor, Rhonda Parrish, is once again running her annual fundraiser for the Edmonton Food Bank. The Food Bank’s resources are strained more than ever, as it fulfills its mission of helping those in need. If you right-click the link below, you will be taken to the fundraiser page. This year’s goal is $1,000 (CDN), which will provide 3,000 meals through the magic of really, really hard work by a lot of people determined to feed their neighbors.

2020 Giftmas Fundraiser – CanadaHelps

This has been one bear of a year, but any amount helps. If you can, please donate. Thank you.

This year’s theme is “Connections.” At first this seemed easy Holidays fluff. I could type up a couple hundred words about chestnuts roasting/Santa/Carols etc. and be good to go. However…

Connections aren’t positive or negative, which is why this is not an easy topic. Sometimes they are both at once. Anyone who has been in the middle of a particularly nasty fight with their spouse and considered – even for a moment – where to hide a body will attest to the complexities of love, which drives the deepest connections.

Now, I have many positive connections in my life: lifetime friends, dear family, close colleagues, good neighbors. Folks I like and admire, who I miss terribly during pandemic isolation, and who I look forward to seeing in person again.

I have negative connections, too. Former friends who chose different paths. Colleagues who focused only on what was good for them. Neighbors who became antagonists over the smallest of irritants.

Family who kept cycles of fear and pain going, instead of putting in the work to break them.

These are the connections of my life, good and bad. They connect me to the “me” I came from, the “me” I am now, and help lead toward a (hopefully) better “me” to come.

I recently wrote up a remembrance for Tabatha Wood’s amazing Memento Vitae Project ( found at Memento Vitae | Tabatha Wood ) about my Grandfather. Where other kids had an imaginary friend they spent time with, I had Grandpa Riley, and as an only child I talked to him all the time. Even though he died before I was born he is a cornerstone – a prime connection – in my life; almost as much as my Nana was, and she lived to 101.

Together they connect me to the “me” that I was, and inspire me to become not only a better person but an unfailingly positive connection for my circle of people, my family and friends. I may not achieve this but thanks to them I try.

I love them both, and I miss them terribly.

GRANDPA RILEY’S WALKING STICK

My grandfather was born in December 1898.

He died a few days before my mother would have found she was pregnant.

She was 21 and unmarried; so we lived with my grandmother in the tidy 2-bedroom house my grandparents built in 1941. It was a household that had just lost a husband and father to a withering cancer at a time when chemotherapy was referred to as “poison” and thought to cause more harm than good.

It was a house my grandfather still inhabited, not only in the memories of my mother and grandmother but also neighbors, family and friends. “You have his eyes”; “he would have loved you”; “you look just like him.”

He permeated my childhood. My favorite plaything when I was a toddler was his basement workbench.  I played with hammers and screwdrivers, hand drills and saws. I pounded nails into the heavy bench posts, pulled them out, and hammered them in again. I sawed scraps of lumber into smaller and smaller scraps, learning to steady boards with the heavy bench clamp and barking my knuckles nonstop.

My second-favorite space was the semi-finished attic, where his big steamer trunk was stored. I would open it and rummage through the layers of “stuff”; pieces of his youth that had not been lost over the years or donated after he died. Everything from spats to sepia photos to his Canadian Forces medals from The Great War were in there, and I handled them with a reverence I didn’t hold for my own toys.

But most precious, tucked in my Mom’s closet and not in the basement or attic, was his walking stick. My memory is vague, but I think it was his grandfather’s, a proper shillelagh handed down. For a young man who had traveled extensively as a merchant marine and a soldier, then moved to a different country, his keeping this small stick of wood all along the way meant it was important to him, which made it a treasure to me.

His tools were given away when my grandmother sold the house in the 1980s. My Mom has his medals and a few photos in a bookcase– the rest of his trunk is gone.  But the walking stick has pride of place in my living room; and it’s the only non-living thing I would go for if my house was on fire.

It helps me to remember:

  • The man I have never seen but whose eyes look out at me from the mirror.
  • Who was hit with mustard gas in France serving King and Country.
  • Who loved my grandmother and mother so much I could feel it in my own life though he was gone.
  • Who kept a walking stick through the changes of his life as memento of his own grandfather.

Thank you, Grandpa.

Hear Me Roar!

I’m tardy on this, but… *waves at news wires*

My latest published story came out in September – Hear Me Roar (via poiseandpen publishing and available at all the usual places) includes “Blackout” and the reviews got me thinking.

(yes, I read my own reviews. Mistake? Usually. But I hope as a newbie writer that even obnoxious comments hold some opportunity to improve my skillset.)

Some of them called out that my story was really dark. Now I can’t stand scary movies. I’m not a big fan of scary books. As for TV? even the X-Files used to creep me out. But I enjoy learning how to write horror…. especially the human kind. Oh, sure, zombies and aliens and all that other stuff has its place but true terror lies in what people do to each other, and the lingering effects of trauma and PTSD.

See, a zombie by definition is mindless hunger. Aliens may see us as nothing different than we see chickens or carrots. But people know better. People choose to inflict horrors on other people, knowing humans feel pain. Feel hunger. Feel hopelessness and despair. Much as reading a scary book can give me the willies, what really scares me is not a haunted laundry press or a ghost ship but child abuse and terrorizing the helpless.

So – my latest story should carry pretty much every trigger warning there is. I hope if you read it, you enjoy it anyway.

The Fourth Estate

15 press Pass PNG cliparts for free download | UIHere

In addition to being a voracious reader, I’m a news junkie. My original plan for “what I want to be when I grow up” was a Reporter. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Detroit, which in the 1970s and ’80s had two stellar independent newspapers – the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press – and from junior high school onward I wrote for each school newspaper, the Parish bulletin, the local penny saver, any print medium that would let me.

I won just enough awards to feel like I could ‘do this,’ and followed my favorite columnists like other kids followed sports stars… More than one Hallowe’en costume included a narrow spiral notebook and a fedora with a “press” card tucked into the band.

I mastered the basics of photography, editorial reviews, and layout far before the days of digital media; certain scents (darkroom chemicals, hot wax…) carry me back decades each time I smell them. Though I focused on print I also learned Radio and TV reporting just in case.

After college I did have some success as a reporter at small local papers, but I had not anticipated how (small-P) political newsrooms were. As a young reporter, I didn’t play the game very well, and bounced around as a stringer for longer than I want to recall.

Also, even though I knew going in that “journalist” was among the lowest-compensated professions (I made more money bar tending on weekends than I did working about 60 hours a week as a reporter) after a certain point I realized the best way to dig myself out from under the debt load I had accumulated was to work in restaurants and bars full time (yes, I made more money waiting tables than working in my college-degreed field…) Finally around age 30 I gave up story-chasing and got (as my Mom puts it) a real job as a technical writer. I haven’t filed a story since.

For a while my ultimate goal had been to serve as an AP or UPI Stringer: a foreign correspondent. I was ready to carry the strength and integrity of a Free Press with me to repressed societies and dictatorships around the world. To use my narrow spiral notebook and press card to shine a light into darkness, and be a voice for good. To bear witness.

This reminisce has a point, one that seems to be sharpening with each day’s news cycle. What I’m afraid is being forgotten is – just like fire fighters running into burning buildings – journalists put their lives on the line on a regular basis, and the job is getting more dangerous, not due to the usual suspects of wars and disasters but purposeful targeting.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think in 2020 the country with possibly the greatest need to journalistic strength and integrity would be the one I grew up in.

I’m closer to the end than the beginning these days, without the drive and determination (or physical ability, if we’re being frank) needed to jump into a jeep and roar toward the story. But I can still bear witness. So every day I read the morning paper and watch the evening news to bear witness: the courage of my colleagues; the voice of the stories themselves; and strength and integrity of a new generation, who only need an iPhone to by heard ’round the world.

I am proud of the journalists, bloggers, reporters, stringers and foreign correspondents who commit their lives to chase and publish the truth. Good reporting is just as important fighting fires, and there are a lot of fires – of all kinds – that need to be fought these days.

Swashbuckling Cats!

It started – as the best things do – with a friend being silly. It ended with a anthology of stories curated by Rhonda Parrish, including my first attempt at humor (or at least silly) writing: the short story Buccaneer’s Revenge.

I am a fan of Cats (the Musical… haven’t seen the movie but I am bracing myself to rent the DVD), have a decades-long subscription to Vanity Fair, and passing familiarity with what used to be known as B Grade movies before they were called “International Blockbusters.”

I took those three facts, put them in a blender, added as many animal puns as I could squeeze in, and hit “pulse.” Buccaneer’s was the result. I hope you enjoy it, as it shares pages with an awesome array of stories. Release date is May 26 right into the teeth of the pandemic, but Rhonda and Margaret (our stalwart publisher) are running a virtual launch party, which will be loads of fun!

Giftmas 2019

Ho Freakin’ Ho! It’s that time of year when Rhonda Parrish and her merry elves put on a fundraiser for the Edmonton Food Bank. This year’s goal is to raise $1,000, which will feed a lot of hungry people during a very cold time of year. To that end, Rhonda donates time and treasure; a lot of really nice people have put in raffle prizes; and several of us are sharing stories, recipes and other fun stuff. This year I get to share Friday the 13th with two superb writers and All Around Good Folk: Stephanie Loree and Laura VanArendonk Baugh. Please visit their blogs, and be sure to drop into all the sites from the 10th to the 15th.

Points to keep in mind:

  • Money is donated directly through Canada Helps, so people can trust their donations are going where we say they are — to help feed families
  • Donations are in Canadian dollars so some international donors (American and British, especially) can get a lot of bang for their buck
  • Each dollar raised equals 3 meals

Here are links to donate (PLEASE DONATE) and to the raffle (BUY COOL STUFF):

Okay got it? Good. Without further ado, here’s my Holiday Story.

Drift

At first Carol enjoyed her friends’ comments.  “Did you lose weight?  You look different.”  But then they changed.  “Are you feeling okay?  You look… pale.” 

By the Holiday block party, the comments had stopped all together.  Carol found herself in the kitchen of her own home, ignored by her neighbors and trying to convince herself she wasn’t hiding from their snubs.

She thought she understood, one morning, as she looked toward the window and saw her reflection waver in the thin cold light.  “I’m disappearing,” she whispered (when was the last time she’d raised her voice?) “but – why?”

In the kitchen, she sipped her morning decaf while making breakfast.  Their plates were ready (scrambled eggs, toast and coffee for Ron, freezer waffles for Ronny, Egg Beaters for Beth, who was on her fourth different diet that month) when her family blew by in a maelstrom of noise, backpacks and car keys, spurning her food with “I’m late no time!” “We’re hitting McDonald’s on the way” and one simple, surly grunt.

“They didn’t even say good-bye,” Carol mourned, scraping the plates off into the disposal. 

At Sunday dinner Carol found herself competing with two smartphones and the Packers game.  After Ron fell asleep on the coach (Seahawks-Vikings on the West Coast) Carol went to tuck her children in, only to encounter one locked door (Beth) and one video game (Ronny) so violent and noisy she backed out of his room, unseen and slightly afraid.

That night she had trouble seeing herself in the mirror as she brushed her hair. 

The day she was cleaning the den and noticed the vacuum cast a shadow but she didn’t, Carol realized she had to DO something.  She called her doctor’s office twice, but the receptionist only said “Hello?  Hello?” before hanging up, despite Carol’s response.  She went to church, but the priest never noticed her waiting politely in the front pew while he discussed Midnight Mass decorations with the ladies’ auxiliary. 

Carol went back to her clean, quiet home and looked around.  “Is this how ghosts are born?” she wondered.  “Not as spirits of the dead but simply the neglected?”

Well, not her.  Not at Christmas. It was her favorite holiday, even if every year the kids demanded more gifts she had to find.  Even if Ron never even thanked her for all her planning, shopping, decorating, cleaning and cooking to make the Holiday so special.

Even if – more and more – she couldn’t help but feel a little taken for granted.

Fine.  She would MAKE her family sit up and take notice of all she did for them, and then they’d have a wonderful Christmas with love and joy and laughter, just like when the children were small.

That afternoon before Ron got home Carol put her plan into action.  Through the sounds of game explosions and Snapchat giggling, she drifted through the ceiling into the attic (how long had she been able to do that, Carol wondered faintly) and wrapped her hands around the main router cord.  It kept slipping through her fingers but she finally grasped it firmly enough to give a good tug.  When the Wifi stopped Ronny and Beth would call her.  They would need her.  They would SEE her and appreciate her and she’d be back to normal. Christmas would be great.

With a faint blip the router cord disconnected.  There was sudden, blessed silence downstairs.  Sure enough… “MOM!!!!” Ronny yelled from his room.  “The Internet’s out!” 

Carol sighed contentedly as she drifted toward the stairs.  Then she heard her daughter.  “Mom doesn’t know anything,” Beth said, scorn layered into every word.  “We’re going to have to wait until Dad’s home.”

And Carol was gone.

Edits or Revisions?

A very large part of my Day Job involves writing and editing, often under very tight deadlines; I have been inculcated for decades with the understanding: there’s no such thing as deathless prose. Oh sure, there’s nice clean copy. A strong proposal. A compelling narrative. But very rarely is something so perfect as to not need even a tweak.

In the few small fictions I’ve had published, the editor has come back each time with a handful of suggestions; all but one of which I have agreed to*. My theory? This person is buying my words, and should get at least an opinion as to how they flow. Also sometimes I’ve been staring at a page so long I look right past obvious changes, and part of an editor’s job is to make the words work together as best they can.

I recently got a note back on a story I submitted saying it was short-listed (happy dance) but the editor wasn’t thrilled with the ending. She didn’t have any specific edits or revisions, it just left her going “meh” and was there something I could do?

Changing words or their flow is different than “your ending sucks, please fix it”; to me, one is basic editing (which I do a lot of) and the other is revising an entire story. I dove back in knowing I might have to make significant changes from Word One, and that was scary and a little sad…. but a really good exercise.

So what happened? I ended up adding a paragraph right in the middle that didn’t mean anything to the revisions but my Muse dropped right into my brain as I got to that part of the story. Then I added about 500 words and came up with a far better ending than I had in the original submission (if I do say so myself).

I also learned something along the way I think is going to be really important. I knew that I need to let stories percolate in the back of my mind before my Muse puts down the tequila and kicks out a decent idea. But apparently my “Done!” draft is only a final one, and I need to set it aside for a couple of days before picking it up for one more round.

This is hard to do. With the deadlines of my Day Job, I’m used to finishing, proofing and shipping projects out because there are more coming at me like jets landing O’Hare and I have GOT to clear the runways before a crash. Fiction has deadlines too (obviously) but ordinarily they are more forgiving…. especially if I learn to plan time for one more review. I will always proofread and do my own editing (and yes, the old “fool for a client” axiom applies to writers as well as lawyers) but I need to get a better feel for revising, in order to become a stronger fiction writer.

I have a rolling calendar for my Day Job that includes due dates, ship dates, etc. I think it’s time to create one for fiction, too.

*The only one I pushed back on was because I clearly “heard” the character’s voice saying the words one way and not the other

On the Road Again

I am headed for Parts North (and somewhat West) again this August to the 2019 “When Words Collide” writers’ convention, part of a larger driving tour I have mapped out.  The plan is to fly into Calgary then driving north to Edmonton, west to Jasper, south through the Ice Fields Parkway to Banff and Canmore, hitting “WWC” in Calgary for three days; then south to Glacier, Helena and Yellowstone before retracing my steps and flying from Calgary home to Chicago.

Yikes that’s ambitious.  But it gives me time to not only see some of the planet’s most beautiful scenery, I have found long drives to be conducive to thinking about stories.  It’s amazing the plot points my brain can hammer out alone in the car.

This will be helpful, as I need to hammer out a lot of plot points; it’s time to ramp up my summer writing.  I’m a massive procrastinator, and with the “WWC” deadline fast approaching (even though it’s only in my head… I have nothing due for the convention) it’s time to start typing away.

PS – the photo above is the (only) road within Denali National Park. I took it during a trip to Alaska some years back…. yes, it’s real. I don;’t have enough skill to use Photoshop.

The Fool and the Wise Men

(But first, a word from our sponsors….)

Every year, the luminous Rhonda Parrish organizes a fundraiser for the Edmonton (AB) Food Bank, and this year she tasked her band of merry elves to write an “Advent Calendar” of stories.  Readers are asked to enjoy the words and then donate if possible.  Even $1 makes a difference, as thanks to its connections within the community, $1 means the Food Bank can serve 3 meals. 

Rhonda has also built a Rafflecopter with an assortment of prizes and donation loot – everything from greeting cards to custom poetry to dice and magnets to editorial support. 

I will proofread up to 5,000 words of a short story, school paper, novel chapter, whatever you need if you donate and choose my gift.  

The goal this year is to raise $750, which means 2250 meals to hungry people this Winter.  Every dime goes directly to the Food Bank – this doesn’t funnel through anybody’s PayPal account or a Facebook link.   

Follow along each day – Rhonda is hosting donation links, updates and prizes at her web siteand has additional details regarding this very worthy cause, including access to the whole story calendar. 

The story right before mine can be found at https://randiperrinwrites.com/blog/   and from my story you can follow the trail to Julie Czerneda’s story, hosted on Rhonda’s blog: www.rhondaparrish.com – please read the entire series, and if you enjoy it?  Kick a buck or two toward the Food Bank. 

NOTE: not all the stories are Holiday-themed.  Some of them are dark and gritty, some – like mine – are goofy little things.  But each one is given to you freely in the hopes you might give a little something.  

PLEASE DONATE.
https://www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/2018-giftmas-blog-tour-to-support-the-edmonton-foo/

(and now, back to our story…)

Let’s get this settled up front.  I am a camel jockey.  My father was a camel jockey, and his father before him and his father before him, as far back as our family tells the tale. 

But just because I’m a camel jockey doesn’t mean I’m foolish.  Ignorant?  Sure – a man can’t know all there is to know.  I will also acknowledge “unlearned”; we are not a wealthy clan and I did not attend great Universities such as in Macedonia or Athens, of which tales are told. 

However, I know my figures enough to keep the financial records of our business, jockeying camels. Taxes must be paid, debts collected or settled, and I was not raised to wholly trust either the tax collector or the debt-caller, but to keep marks my own self.

I know my words – can read and write – for the same reason, so our business and our clan may thrive. My father taught me these things, as his father taught him, as I will teach my son in turn if ever I am blessed to have a son.

But don’t call me a fool.

“Oh, Fool,” the middle astrologer beckoned, calling me over from where I was settling Matu’s belly cinch.

These three were paying customers so I bit back my first (second… third…) reply and bared my teeth in what could reasonably be considered a smile.  “I will be there in a moment, Rishaya.

As I finished the knot and made sure the saddle pad sat correctly so Matu’s hide would not rub raw, my father’s voice was in my ears ‘The client rules the day, my son.  Their custom provides the food which fills our bellies.  Don’t argue over small things.’

I took a deep breath as I straightened, keeping my face neutral.  Don’t argue.  Small things. Smile through petty insults.  Part of the job.  Thanks, Abba

Apparently my face was not as neutral as I thought; the middle astrologer smirked as I approached. “I mean no offense, of course.  I am not as versed in your language as I might be.  After all, my companions and I are wise– “

(Not that wise, to insult the man who is preparing your food on this journey, I thought).

“-and I admit, we see most men as foolish, those who ignore the instruction of Zarathustra in the Heavens. However, it is required by the Avestato lead the foolish to Truth.”  He frowned.  “Perhaps ‘ignorant’ is a better word.  One who does not follow the Way.” his smirk returned “Or believes beasts have deeper understandings.”

‘The successful business man doesn’t have beliefs or opinions,’ my father used to say.  I kept my voice pleasant.  “We will be ready to leave quite soon, Rishaya.  Perhaps you would be so good as to alert your companions?”

Smirk still intact, the middle astrologer nodded and moved toward the large tent I had pitched the night before, where his companions still slept.  My own blankets were rolled up and stashed within Dakata’s load, along with as much of the gear as I could pack while clients occupied the rest.

I did not like the middle astrologer.  The first astrologer – the one with whom I had contracted to bring them safely to their destination – had a kind smile set deep within wrinkles and a long white beard. His raiment was modest, though the small olive wood chest he kept close to himself obviously held something of great value.  The third astrologer – the youngest – said very little, clear green eyes in his dark face always moving as he studied the clouds and the birds in the sky.  His clothing and headgear was wound layers of colorful fabrics and his satchel smelled of the earth, an odd balsam tang when I hoisted it up onto Zhara’s broad back.

But the middle astrologer?  He had neither modest raiment nor quiet mien, and expressed himself as quite the intellectual.  He had laughed, the first morning of our journey, when he came upon me speaking to Matu, discussing the roads we would take.

“Does your camel understand you?” he had asked, intending it a jest.

“Of course,” I had replied, “Matu is far wiser than I, on the subject of roads and traveling.” 

I did not explain further: that Matu at nearly 30 years of age was the oldest of our family’s camels, and had walked the length of the Parthian Empire more times than I had seasons on the earth.  That I was telling him he, Dakata and Zhara would be charged with bearing three men of importance who were paying well for the journey, and I expected them all to behave. 

That I would care for them through the journey, walking beside them by day and bringing them to safe camp each night; and in turn they would help guard our rest against any predators or bandits we might encounter on the way.

I did not explain any of that, or how camels are loyal and affectionate when properly raised.  I did not because the middle astrologer had launched into a discussion of – well, he had lost my understanding after the word “Animist” but I was confident he did not intend a compliment, so I finally tuned him out.  And he referred to me as “Fool” (including a smirking false apology) from that point onward.

To answer his question, no I didn’t believe Matu understood the words I said.  But when that camel was born, my father’s hands were the first Matu felt, my father’s voice the first sounds.  When I was born some years later, among my first sensations was a drop of camel’s milk from Matu’s dam across my tongue.  We were a partnership,the camels and my family; and Matu understood the tone of my words, if not their meaning.  I might be a businessman, but if such a thing existed, he was a business camel. 

However, the middle astrologer did not need my explanation to expand upon his current lecture.  That one loved to hear himself speak, never mind who was willing to listen.  Despite his snide words to me, he would have talked to the camels if no one else was around, and expected them to take notes from his speech.

It was how I learned they were astrologers – “Magi” as he called them, wise men traveling to meet with someone important.  “We don’t yet know who this person is,” he repeated around the fire that night as his companions nodded, “but surely he will be a mighty warrior for Ahura Mazdain the battle for the Cosmos.  We shall stand ready to guide, our wisdom freely given.  That is why I bring him sweet incense, to soothe his mind for the wars to come.”  The middle astrologer rustled his over-garment– a finely embroidered silk – and settled himself into pompous recline, holding his goblet out for refill.

He did not so much as look at me when I refilled it.  Instead he gestured to the comet that stood low in the night sky, the comet they measured every night, carefully marking its path in the sand and then orienting to follow its line in the morning. 

I had been tempted more than once in the days we’d been traveling to erase their lines and draw my own after they retired to their tent, as I banked the fire at night.  Their confusion over a different direction would amuse me, but I knew they would only lengthen the journey; and by this time I was quite ready for it to be over.

‘The business man completes his service and his tasks, on time and as agreed. It keeps his name clean and well thought-of when additional opportunities arise.’ 

I sighed.  My father had led many travelers over the years, covering the great spice roads and dealing with all manner of scoundrels, as well as honest clients.  With his common sense to guide me I could handle three Zoroastrian astrologers for one night more. 

Though over two weeks long, it had been an easy journey.  The weather had been cool, with afternoon rains to keep the dust down and fill the cisterns at which we had stopped in our travels.  The camels remained sound and ample provisions remained for the journey home. 

I would be traveling home alone.  The astrologers had been invited to the great palace of Judea, to visit with Herod and report on finding this warrior king.  We had stopped there a few nights before, and – though I was not privy to their audience with Herod and his advisors – the astrologers had chattered about it along the road the next day like magpies on a branch.  Herod had been unaware, they marveled, that a king had been born within his demesnes.  He invited them to return after they had found this king, tell him who it was, so Herod could properly pay homage in turn.

My experience with rulers was admittedly limited, but I thought the whole encounter odd.  Rulers don’t pay homage – they require it.  The middle astrologer was busy expounding at length about how they would become important advisors to Herod, as well as this new warrior king who might very well be the incarnation of Ahura Mazdahimself; and therefore signal the dawn of the next World Age.  It all sounded…

The prudent businessman keeps close counsel, and does not share opinions that might conflict with proper payment.’  I listened to my father’s voice and urged the camels along the dusty lane leading into the small village, stopping finally before the modest house over which the comet had centered itself in the sky.  The clients were delivered and I had kept my mouth shut. My job was complete. 

It was time to go home.

From this modest village of Bethlehem to my family’s own holding at edge of our great city of Qumis, the return trip would take the camels and me only perhaps ten days, as we would be walking toward beloved land.  However, courtesy required of me one thing before I turned the camels’ noses East.  The blessing of clean water was sacred to my people, who trod the deserts and high ranges and survived off its lands.  I pulled a small flask of tanned camel hide from inside my shirt and decanted a portion of water from the saddlebags, then stepped inside the house, stopping as my eyes adjusted from brightness to not.

The astrologers had gathered to kneel around a girl who stared at them, eyes wide, as she held a baby to her breast.  A man about my age stood a little to the side and stared as well, clutching three items in his arms.  I recognized the olive wood box the first astrologer had carried, and guessed the other two wrapped items were the sweet incense and whatever the youngest astrologer had carried as gift.  The middle astrologer was saying something about stars and portents when I slipped my small leather flask into the man’s hand with a nod.

As I turned to leave there was a happy shriek and loud giggle, and I looked over to meet the joyous, bright blue eyes of the baby boy.  Smiling back, I walked out, closing the well-fitted door behind me and shutting out the middle astrologer’s voice at last.

I was untying Zhara’s nose rope when the door opened and the man stepped out, no longer juggling the packages.  “Friend?” He called, and when I paused held out a scarred hand.  I grasped his hand in mine – noting ropes of muscle in his arm from labor more stringent than reading the stars – and we exchanged greetings of peace.

“It sounds as if you’ve come a long way,” he said.  “I don’t understand the direction my life has taken, but I am grateful you guided these men to us.  Their gold will pay my taxes here, then help us home to Nazareth.  Their frankincense and myrrh will help support my son’s education, as he grows.”

He held Zhara’s and Dakata’s ropes as I swung up onto Matu’s back, then handed them up and patted my camel’s side next to my stirrup.  A sudden grin took years from his face as he continued “But your gift, my friend, I will keep for my wife and myself.  Perhaps in a time soon we will have a moment’s peace in which to enjoy it.”

It was an odd statement, but I was off for home and not willing to tarry and inquire why he would treasure a small skin of water.  As I set off through the dust he spoke out once again.

“For that flask of yours holds a truly most excellent wine.”